Applying xargs

There are some commands that turn out to be more useful than first meets the eye. In my opinion, xargs is one of those commands. It takes the standard input and uses it to build a command line. It's nothing fancy, but it's very handy in some situations.

As soon as you have a list of files, you can easily do something to them. A favorite, common enough to have a shell script of its own on my machine, is It simply locates all backup files using the pattern *~, and then passes them on to rm. The result is a nice and clean current working directory and sub-tree.

find -iname '*~' | xargs rm

Do not forget your single quotes around the pattern, otherwise bash might expand it for you.

Another place where xargs comes in handy is when you want to find files based on contents and perform some sort of action on them. For instance, let's locate all those pesky TODO comments and open up those files in kate.

grep TODO -r . | sed 's/:.*//' | sort -u | xargs kate -u

The -u argument to kate ensures that xargs reuses an existing session instead of opening a new window. This is just the way that I prefer to have it, and I even have an alias setup for kate, so that I always used kate -u. However, aliases are not used by xargs, so I have to add the flag explicitly.

Something completely different, but somewhat similar, is the xclip command. In a perfect world, I just might want to give all the TODOs to a colleague. Just replacing xargs with xclip puts all the filenames in the clipboard.

grep TODO -r . | sed 's/:.*//' | sort -u | xclip

Now I only need to add the header before I paste it all into a mail. "Hi, I expect you to complete these by tomorrow!"


Johan Thelin is a consultant working with Qt, embedded and free
software. On-line, he is known as e8johan.


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Viki You's picture

Yes, it's a good tool.
I like to use it do grep.

$ find . -name "*.cc" | xgargs grep "xxx"

Find can execute a grep, no need to pipe to xargs

Drea's picture

Find can already do this without piping to xargs:

$ find . -name "*.cc" -print -exec grep {} \;

this can be easily done without using xargs!

Anonymous's picture

grep -r xxx *.cc

Non, since the *.cc is going

Anonymous's picture

Non, since the *.cc is going to be expanded, this will /not/ actually recurse.

my favorite is 'ps -aux |

Anonymous's picture

my favorite is 'ps -aux | grep filename | xargs kill -9' to quickly kill a process

pgrep filename | xargs kill

Anonymous's picture

pgrep filename | xargs kill -9

pkill -9 filename

Anonymous's picture

pkill -9 filename

GNU Parallel

Ole Tange's picture

If you like xargs you may like GNU Parallel, too. It does not suffer from the separator problem

Watch the intro videos to learn more:

Common uses for me: ls

G Johnson's picture

Common uses for me:

ls *.mp4|xargs -i -P4 ./ {} # convert files for my DMP, and multi-thread it.

ls *.avi|sed s/avi$/mp4/|xargs -i rm {} #remove source files after conversion

ls|grep -v .bz2$|xargs -i -P4 bzip2 {} # multi-thread zipping, but only files that are not already zipped.

Ok now try all them with spaces :-)

frankie's picture

These days I had to cope with silly file and directory names full of spaces, just to discover how difficult is trying to work around them by shell commands in a general way. It is not something than can be solved by quoting or using -print0 in find commands or -0 in xargs commands.

I found extremely useful using sed to replace spaces with other chars by send and restore them when required. E.g.

sed -e 's/ /\c@/'

is extremely useful to replace temporarily spaces with NULLs when all other tricks fail.

Hit by the separator problem

Ole Tange's picture

It seems you were hit by the separator problem

You may find GNU Parallel does what you mean without trickery.

Watch the intro videos to learn more

Avoiding multiple command invocation with find

PW's picture

If you use
find -name search_string -exec command {} +
command is invoked just once with a list of names rather on each match individually. This can speed things up when there are a lot of matches.

Thank you all!

Johan Thelin's picture

Great to hear all your feedback. There are so many ways to perform this task, it is great to learn how you all do it.

Find is a more versatile tool than first meets the eye and can do much of the tasks described here - it might even deserve a blog of its own.

And for spaces in filenames - who uses that? :-)

Johan Thelin is a consultant working with Qt, embedded and free
software. On-line, he is known as e8johan.


x33a's picture

Try working on files created by windows users. Rarely will those have underscores instead of spaces.

Special characters in filenames

Ole Tange's picture

But I have yet to see even a Windows user have \n in the file name. That is why \n is the default record separator for GNU Parallel and thus it deals nicely with:

My brother's 12" records

Try it. You might like it.

You can also get the same

Anonymous's picture

You can also get the same result with:

find . -name Thumbs.db -exec rm {} \;

Another use of xargs is to replace a string in many files using sed:

find . \( -name "*.php" -or -name "*.html" \) | xargs grep -l StringA | xargs sed -i -e 's/StringA/StringB/g'

What is the difference

forty's picture

What is the difference between :
$ find -iname '*~' | xargs rm
$ rm $(find -iname '*~')

I guess the second one would cause problems when there are spaces in the file names, but according to a previous comment the first one would not work either.

It's also going to fail if

Anonymous's picture

It's also going to fail if you have more than a couple of hundred of file. See ARG_MAX in <linux/limits.h>.

What is the difference

forty's picture

What is the difference between :
$ find -iname '*~' | xargs rm
$ rm $(find -iname '*~')

I guess the second one would cause problems when there are spaces in the file names, but according to a previous comment the first one would not work either.


Jack Repenning's picture

Both have problems with spacey file names.

The difference is in chunking: xargs accepts "a few" of its input arguments and builds and runs the "rm …" command, then accepts "a few more", runs another command, and so on. If the number of files in the find output is small, there will be no difference at all -- one "rm" command will run. But if the list is very large, the second form will fail because the argument list gets too long.

This is also why "find … | xargs rm" is superior to "find … -exec rm {} \;". The first form does "a few" at a time, while the second form runs one rm command for each file. Again, for few results, no important difference, but for many results, the xargs solution can be much faster.

There are switches to xargs to be more explicit about how many is "a few," but it's pretty rare to actually need to bother with that. By default, xargs does "a lot, but not too many."

Here's a general-purpose

Kevin Granade's picture

Here's a general-purpose wrapper I use when I want to act on every source file in a directory tree (for example " | xargs -0 etags" to generate a TAGS file).

> cat
find . -name .svn -prune -o -name "*test*" -prune -o -name "*stub*" -prune -o -name "*.[ch]" -a -name "*$1*" -print0

The main features are the "-name .svn -prune" and "-name "*.[ch] -a -name "*$1*" -print0" clauses, which avoid descending into .svn directories and return matching c source files respectively, these would probably need to be customized for your project, for example if you use different source control or language.

Might want to mention -print0 and -0

Anonymous's picture

If the file names from the find have spaces, then xargs will see it as two or more files. The easy thing to do is add -print0 to find and -0 to xargs.

How about 'grep -l TODO *

Anonymous's picture

How about 'grep -l TODO * |xargs kate -u' ?

About the find command, the

@nileshgr's picture

About the find command, the -delete switch is more handy than this. This won't work if filenames have spaces. Special switches needed for that.